RECORD COLLECTOROctober 20, 2006
In the closing pages of his 2003 memoir, 'Broken Music', Sting reveals that he didn't go to his parents funerals. Such was the global adulation and tabloid interest in The Police, and in his subsequent solo career, that he felt his attendance might turn either occasion into a 'degrading circus'. To pull out of prior professional commitments, he said, would also have created numerous logistical headaches, affecting the livelihoods of scores of people who relied on a bloke with a bass to put food on their tables.
It's mentioned almost matter-of-factly, as if devastating intrusion into his private life was the norm, something that comes with the territory. Written nearly 20 years after the demise of what was then the biggest band on the planet, it also hints at the scale of the operation that goes into 'being' Sting. But, though he's been in the public eye for nearly 30 years, it could be argued that he has more control over his celebrity status these days, and is probably thankful that, while he still attracts a sizeable 'circus', he is more often than not the ringmaster.
Most of 'Broken Music' is an account of Sting's childhood and adolescence as Gordon Sumner, but later chapters touch on the lean and hungry years, as he struggles to climb the ladder of success, with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. What happened when Sting reached the top rung could no doubt provide the meat and potatoes for a second volume, but his erstwhile band mates have beaten him to it, going public with their own recollections and impressions within weeks of one another.
Summers is disarmingly forthright in his evocative autobiography 'One Train Later'. It charts his career from teenage blues bands playing Bournemouth hotels, to kicking his heels in the hours before a show at New York's Shea Stadium (The Police were the first band to play the legendary home of baseball since The Beatles). It's an endlessly revealing first-person chronicle of being one of the most famous musicians in the world, and of the extraordinary personal price paid by such a person.
Copeland's testimony is presented in a less traditional form. His film, 'Everyone Stares', is the ultimate in fly-on-the-wall reality viewing: more than 50 hours of Super 8 footage, shot by the drummer himself, and compressed into an effortlessly entertaining yet cautionary tale of the true nature of hero worship. If you want to know how many copies 'Reggatta de Blanc' sold worldwide, or if 'King Of Pain' did better in the singles charts than 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', look elsewhere. Neither Summers nor Copeland spend much time analysing the impact their group had on an adoring public, opting instead to show us the effect it had on the players themselves.
If they won't do it, neither will Record Collector. However, to more fully understand the thoughts of two-thirds of the best-selling trio of all time, it's useful to be reminded of how big The Police were at their peak. They were as revered by 'serious' music fans as any band that has followed them (U2, REM, Nirvana), while being wept over more than any subsequent teen idols (Take That, Westlife, McFly). They were also utterly despised by that section of the record-buying public that irrationally equates multi-million dollar success with irredeemable naffness.
In other words they were an incredibly important and daring proposition.
Seen by some as punk betrayers (who nonetheless opened the door for dozens of 'new wavers'), they boldly incorporated reggae-based rhythmic patterns and jazz guitar figures into three-minute pop songs and that endure today. Lyrically, they raised the bar right from the start: their first two major label singles dealt with prostitution ('Roxanne') and suicide ('Can't Stand Losing You'), and were all but ignored by radio as a result (both songs belatedly broke through thanks to the groundswell of the band's live following).
Fame didn't dilute the band's message, and their all-time best sellers concerned the suggestion of adult sexual yearning for a minor ('Don't Stand So Close To Me') and the hitherto no-go area of stalking ('Every Breath You Take'). All in all, strong stuff for the 'Smash Hits' generation.
It's hard to resist over-simplifying the journey that a group takes from their first flush of success to their often messy implosion - from, say, the madcap laughs of 'A Hard Days Night' to the embittered car crash eavesdropping of 'Let It Be'. In the case of The Police, the former took the shape of wacky videos promoting 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. What Summers and Copeland give us now is a sneak peak at the latter end of the spectrum.
Their respective decisions to break their long silences by no means detract from the joys and the heights of their time together, but offer unique insights into the downsides of their supposedly charmed lives.
Andy Summers - "The music got lost in the mayhem"
Few guitarists have had such eventful careers as Andy Summers, a man who whose ascent to the top was fraught with hiccups and obstacles. On the surface, it seems a traditional route to superstardom, paying his dues in local bands and on the fringes of scenes which made legends of others, and ultimately getting his big break after a decade and-a-half of hard slog.
But the journey was punctuated by its fair share of hair-raising moments, with Summers left penniless and unemployed in America, and later in fear for his life at the hands of the underworld thugs who, for all intents and purposes, ran the Japanese music business at the time. These early years are recalled in great detail in the first half of his autobiography, One Train Later. A rock'n'roll page-turner of the highest order, it would qualify as a must-read even if the author stopped at page 170, before he got into writing about the band that made him a millionaire.
"I didn't really want to write about The Police at all," Summers says about his book. "There's been so much ink used up on them over the years. But a lot of books get things wrong, or just speculate on things that happened, because the authors weren't there and couldn't possibly know how stuff went down. I wanted to get the facts across.
"Not that I was setting out to tell the whole story of the group. I actually tried to avoid doing that as much as possible. But you've got to do it, to a certain degree. I ended thinking, if I can take going over all that old ground and tell my parts of the story as an exercise in superior writing, then it's probably gonna be worth reading.
"I'm really just trying to tell a human story about three guys, and, of course, like any success story it's got its flipside. That's what makes the book compelling. If it was roses all the way it wouldn't make a very interesting read. You've got to go into the emotional landscape of what really goes on. When trying to attain, and sustain, this incredible success there's a price to pay, like there is for everything in life. You have to be truthful in what you write, otherwise it's just bullshit.
"It's not that I particularly wanted to harp on about the downside of fame, but it's what makes the story interesting - the frailty of people and all the stuff that goes with it."
You write about becoming other people's property, and feeling like you were providing the soundtrack to someone else's party.
"I believe that's true, it got to a point where a certain amount of distortion was taking place and everything we did become this huge event. The music tended to get lost in the mayhem. It got pretty-out of control, really, especially when you discover how people rely on you for their livelihoods. It was a total shock to me when I actually heard how many people were on the road with us, because the artist rarely sees more than about 15.
"I hadn't realised just how many bodies it took to get those shows up and running. From crew to truck drivers to riggers to sound guys, it just goes on and on and on. It's phenomenal. I mention at one point that we had an entourage of 75, but it was probably more than that by the end."
Your rise to the top comes across as a frenzied time, as if nothing was ever going to stop you. Yet the cracks start to appear around the time of making the third album, 'Zenyatta Mondatta'.
"That album was kind of a mess. Because of other commitments, we only had about three weeks to do it. We should have taken more time with it, seeing as it was the record that was supposed to seal our worldwide fame. Yet, though we often talked about how it could have been a much better album, it was still the one that really broke us in the States. It did have some really good songs on it, but I think we were disappointed with the end result. It had a couple of instrumentals on it, which could be seen as a bit of filler, but its good parts were really good, I think."
It's around this point that you talk about feeling like a guitarist in someone else's band, as Sting's prolific output as a writer left little opportunity for you or Stewart to bring your songs to the table.
"I hardly got any of my own songs on the albums. Only about three or four in total, plus a couple of collaborations. Bur the fact was that Sting was a very gifted songwriter and he quickly took the lead. He'd had a lot of material knocking about for ages. The first demo he ever played me was 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', which we didn't actually record until the fourth album, 'Ghost In The Machine'. He always had this big book he carried around, full of lyrics that he'd been working on for years. He was a real songwriter, no question about it, so it was a bit hard to contend with. I felt I had talents in that area, too, but there you go. It's all part of being in a band."
You also confirm the rumour that A&M Records wanted one of your songs, 'Omega Man', as the lead single on 'Ghost In The Machine', but it was vetoed by Sting.
"Well, that's what I was told by (manager) Miles Copeland. I only found out years after the fact. I don't know if I would have confronted Sting about it, had I known at the time. I don't think I ever expected one of my songs to be considered as a single. I suppose it's flattering that A&M thought it stood out, but it wasn't to be.
"I think what made The Police were the arrangements. There was a three-way effort to come up with that sound, it wasn't just Sting. It was born of the chemistry between the three of us. There are a couple of Police covers bands here in Los Angeles, but there generally aren't that many, because it's harder material to recreate than a lot of other groups'. It's rhythmically tricky and some of the guitar parts are too difficult. I liked the fact that they were difficult. I'd played in straightforward 12-har blues bands in the past, but I found it too boring harmonically. It was all too generic for my tastes. It wasn't really who I was.
"The Police was a synthesis of many different kinds of music. I was able to use my jazz and classical abilities to create that harmonic approach to playing pop runes. It wasn't really the sort of music that benefited from additional players, it was a locked unit with the brilliant interplay between the three of us. There was absolutely no need for anyone else.. It would have messed the whole thing up."
That interplay is pretty evident on 'Every Breath You Take'. Your guitar takes what is a fairly straightforward song to another level.
"Well, without that guitar part there's no song. That's what sealed it. My guitar completely made it classic and put the modern edge on it. I actually came up with it in one take, but that's because Sting's demo left a lot of space for me to do what I did. There was no way I was just gonna strum barre chords through a song like that. I would have been laughed out of the studio. I don't think I've ever played a single barre chord in my whole career."
Did you feel a sense of freedom when the band split up? Were you able to reclaim your life?
"I'm not sure if I'd go that far, because there was a huge sense of loss as well. Not being in that situation anymore took a tremendous readjustment. Yes, it was a whole programmed life to a large extent, but a lot of the time it was fantastic."
All three of you suffered marriage breakdowns, but you reconciled with your wife, Kate, a couple of years after the band's demise. Would that have happened if The Police had carried on?
"I would say probably not. I can't say that for sure, but it's not a life that lends itself to domestic bliss. To go through something as totally intense as the three of us did and try to hold a marriage together is not easy. It didn't work for any of us, basically. Home life inevitably suffers because you're never there. Sting and I both had young fan1i1ies and you can't really drag babies around the world with you, it's just too much."
The three of you have resisted a reunion so far, but is one likely at some point?
"I think it's possible that it might happen at some point in the future, but I'm not sitting here waiting for the phone to ring. It's been a long time now, and it would clearly be a gigantic money-maker, though that's not the only reason to do it.
"I always thought we should have bowed out with a bang and done something to put a final seal on our time together. I think there's a lot of people our there who never saw The Police and would like to have done, and I stil1 think we could kick some serious arse. I reckon we could take any band on.
"Despite what some people may still think, there's no huge rift between the three of us. Stewart lives about five minutes from me, here in Los Angeles, and we've been talking a lot recently. We might end up doing something together next year. Maybe I'll help him out on some of his soundtrack work. I had dinner with Sting a couple of times a few months back, so there's friendly contact. Who knows what the future holds? Never say never."
Stewart Copeland - "It was a living hell"
At various points over the last 18 months, Stewart Copeland felt like he was back in The Police. Such were the demands on his time, as he surrendered almost every waking hour to compiling, editing and promoting his Super 8 odyssey, 'Everyone Stares'.
Copeland's camera was ever-present when the group travelled the world between 1977 and 1984, but he only returned to the footage last year. After positive screenings at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, the film is now available on DVD, the culmination of Copeland's long hard slog to put across his perspective of his time in the band.
"I can't believe I let The Police take over my life for a second time,' Copeland jokes. 'It's been incredibly time-consuming. If I'd known how much would be involved before I started, I might have thought twice about doing it. The fact that it was a testing exercise in film production made it all worthwhile though, It's not like an MTV documentary where the band is over there, somewhere, and you're watching from a safe distance. The camera is the band and your name is Stewart when you watch this movie.
"I had about 50 hours of these little three-minute canisters- that's about 1000 canisters of film. They were kinda state of the art when I started! Sound was really the latest development in Super 8 at the time. It's a format that never really became a mass market thing. It got blown out of the water by video. As you can see from Sting and Andy in the tour bus, it was the pre-walkman era, too. They're wearing these huge bulbous earphones, plugged into a transistor radio."
Did the memories come flooding back, watching this material for the first time in 20 years?
"I can't say that I had much of an emotional response to watching the film again, because the whole Police experience has been hashed and rehashed so many times over the years. It wasn't as if I'd been able to forget those days. What I did have, as a filmmaker, was this wild glee that I had those shots. I had the mob scenes and this and that, and I just thought, 'Fuck, this is gonna be a great movie!' So, yeah, there was that excitement to looking at it all again..
"I sort of cut it together semi-chronologically and then I figured I needed a storyline - a first act, a second act, etc. When I shot the thing I was a rank amateur, a 20-something rock star. But when I edited it, I was a 50-something with many years experience in post-production. I have lot of knowledge and expertise in that area now, so, after assembling the footage, it was just a case of marking out a plot, so that it works as an actual movie, not just as a bunch of cool shots."
Even though it's a movie where most viewers already know how it ends?
"Yeah. I don't really tell the story of the Police, though. Some people have asked me where's all the analysis of the creative dynamic in the band? Where's the examination of our place in music? Where's any useful information about The Police at all? But there isn't any! It's about the rush of riding a rocket ship.
"There's one moment in the movie where suddenly it cuts out of our little threesome to all the news perception of the band, where you see all the TV announcers and their take on the band from the outside, the public face of the band, what everybody else saw. You've got the images of the three of us giggling between ourselves and then you see how it looked to everyone else."
Were you able to step back and look at the wider picture? Were you aware of your fame at the time?
"Not much. The sequence of news reports of fighting in Beirut is in there to give you the idea of what it was like to be in this cocoon. Suddenly, I'm in my hotel room and I glance at the TV and, what the fuck?! That's my home town and it's in flames! It really did emphasise for me the thickness of the cocoon and how far removed I was from the real world."
Some musicians admit to feeling stupid because they're so out of touch with everyday events.
"That's exactly how you can feel. That stupidity is part of the process. They like us to be like stuffed pillows. As long as we're just sitting there, docile, it's easier to get us to focus on the job at hand. Once we get up out of our seats and start exercising independent thought, the situation gets out of control.
"Having said that, we tended not to exercise independent thought. There is an instinct to recoil and stay in the cocoon. You go all around the world and you kinda don't notice it. You wake up one morning, look over your shoulder, and there's a pyramid. Oh, how did that get there? Or rather, how did I get here?
In your voiceover, you describe the band as 'avatars in a mythical world' of the fans minds', like you are this separate, untouchable, unreal thing. It seems only half-mocking.
"Yeah, because they're not seeing Stewart who went to such-and-such a school, who has so-and-so for a brother and is just a guy who has to brush his teeth in the morning. The image that they carry in their minds is one that they got from the front cover of a magazine, or from listening to the music and imagining what a wonderful person must have made it. So when they see 'the real me' in from of them, they still don't see me - they see a manifestation of me that relates to what's already in their heads.
"It's a curious thing to observe, but it's not too much of an intrusion. It's kind of bemusing how they look at you. That's kind of why I called the movie 'Everyone Stares'. The film is mostly about what it's like to be stared at all the time. To be the can of beans, which is pretty much what you are. I didn't actually make this point in the movie, but I should have done. In a rock band you are, personally, the can of beans. In any other line of work, say film composing, which I do now, or selling advertising, or being an accountant or a greengrocer, the product you are dealing with is something else. In a rock band, you are the product. You are the thing that is being sold."
Were you prepared for such massive stardom?
"Well, yeah. There was always the assumption that we would conquer the world. That's the assumption that every band makes. The actual reality of it, when it happens, never looks how you thought it would, though. The mountain is always higher than you ever thought it was. At that early stage you think that all you need is that one hit single and that's it, you're stars. But, no, that's just one step on the ladder, just one ring of the rainbow.
"We worked at the first album to make something of ourselves. We had these songs and we wanted the world to love them. On the second album, we rushed in after touring and were so full of self confidence and joy that we just blasted it out in a heartbeat. By the third album, uh-oh, we've got a few hits under our belt and that's what's expected of us. We had to do hits, so the whole thing about being in a band began to lose that innocent thrill."
So had it become a chore by the time of the last album, 'Synchronicity'?
"It was a living hell! But it wasn't a chore. It was deeply engrossing and we committed ourselves to it with every fibre or our bodies. That doesn't mean it was fun, or comfortable, or easy. It was really hard. But a chore would imply a level or boredom or something. It was never boring."
You touch upon the friction in the band in your voiceover, but there's little evidence of it on screen. Was it a diplomatic decision to leave it out?
"No. There is that rumour, but I just don't have that footage. Most of the film is about the three of us travelling and being on the road. The arguments were in the studio, by and large."
Was that because of Sting turning up with songs that were near to completion?
"That's it in a nutshell. Sting was completely within his rights to be a musician and to complete the songs he'd written in the way he'd envisioned them. He didn't have to wait for the percussion section, i.e. me, to tell him how the rhythm should go. But from mine and Andy's side, we weren't playing in a band just so that we could realise someone else's fait accomplis.
"We can say now with hindsight that we each had a reasonable position. But at the time it was frustrating in so many ways. It was still quite a modern idea that bands should collaborate, and that a sole composer would compromise his ideas in any way.
"I went straight from 'Synchronicity' to the 'Rumblefish' soundtrack, which was just heaven on earth. I came from hell and landed in heaven. It was just me with all my music toys. I played most of the instruments and Francis Coppola would come in every now and then and say, 'Oh yeah, that sounds brilliant, carry on.'
"I didn't have to compromise, I didn't have to struggle, I could actually follow my own musical vision without someone throwing up a roadblock."
What have Sting and Andy said about the film?
"They were OK about it, particularly Andy, because he's the star of the movie. He steals every scene he's in! Sting claims not to have seen it, and I don't know whether to believe him or not. But he says his kids tell him he looks cool in it, so he's fine."
Do you consider the film to be your autobiography of your days in The Police?
"Yeah, I think it'll be the last thing I actually say about my time in the band. I'm writing an actual book about all my adventures since The Police. Since then, I've found myself playing polo with royalty, hanging out with pygmies in the southern Congo, taking bows at an opera I've composed, and being a judge on an a TV talent show! That was a blast, by the way, doing that show (Just The Two Of Us). I've already signed up for another series next year.
"Of course, I probably wouldn't have got to do any of those things if I hadn't been in The Police. I can bitch about certain aspects of it, but it did allow me the life I have today, a life that I relish."
© Record Collector by Terry Staunton